From the category archives:


Words on a Screen

by Matt Blair on January 18, 2010

in History,Inspirations,Meaning,Quotes,Senses

Each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I set aside some time to read through one of his speeches.

Yes, read. Not listen or watch, but read.

True, Dr. King was more of a speechmaker than a pamphleteer. The audio and video recordings of his speeches are indeed powerful.

But it’s kind of like that moment when you think of a song you’ve loved for years, and realize you have no idea what it’s about, or maybe just an incomplete understanding.

The non-verbal elements that inspire and attract us to a well-delivered speech can distract us from the actual message.

Strip away the soaring tone, the cheer of the crowd, the scratchy black-and-white sense of historical import, the measured breath and gleam in the eyes, the hands resting on each side of the podium as the voice rises and falls, and what’s left?

The words.

Quietly reading the text of a speech removes many of those sensual elements that allow us to get swept away in the moment.

It also fills out the frame in a way that all the short clips and soundbites we hear so often never do: not just the heights at the end, but the slow, steady climb through the rhetorical switchbacks before we glimpse the summit.

Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt that I posted last year:

Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”

Hard not to think of pre-earthquake Haiti when reading a quote like that.

This year, I chose “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“, from which this line also reminded me of Haiti — and North Korea and Zimbabwe and Detroit and so many other places:

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

And this is the passage that’s stuck with me throughout the day:

One day a newsman came to me and said, “Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?” I looked at him and I had to say, “Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion.” Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.


Cowardice, Expediency, Politics and Vanity as the four horseman of Inaction, with Conscience as the savior?

I could sign on to that worldview.

The King Institute has a list of Dr. King’s speeches, with transcriptions of most.

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The Right Storm of Attention

by Matt Blair on March 12, 2009

in Performance,Quotes

“Attention is what creates value. Artworks are made as well by how people interact with them — and therefore by what quality of interaction they can inspire. So how do we assess an artist who we suspect is dreadful but who manages to inspire the right storm of attention, and whose audience seems to swoon in the appropriate way? We say, ‘Well done.’”

Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices



by Matt Blair on March 5, 2009

in Meaning,Quotes

“But the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze. The poet did not stop at the color or the form, but read their meaning; neither may he rest in this meaning, but he makes the same objects exponents of his new thought. Here is the difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false. For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.”

from The Poet by Ralph Waldo Emerson


Who are you inviting to the table?

by Matt Blair on February 18, 2009

in Performance,Quotes

“Readers and listeners enjoy my books,
But poet Whozis thinks I’m pretty crude.
I don’t much care. I’d rather have my food
Appeal to hungry feasters than to cooks.”

(translated by Rolfe Humphries)


General Principles, From an Organist

by Matt Blair on February 9, 2009

in Life Cycle of Ideas,Quotes

  • Don’t look forward to a finished and complete entity. The idea must always be kept in a state of flux.
  • An error may be only an unintentional rightness.
  • Do not get too fussy about how every part of the thing sounds. Go ahead. All processes are at first awkward and clumsy and “funny”.
  • Polishing is not at all the important thing; instead strive for a rough go-ahead energy.
  • Do not be afraid of being wrong; just be afraid of being uninteresting.

Excerpts of “General Basic Principles”
from organist T. Carl Whitmer’s 1934 book
The Art of Improvisation
Quoted by Derek Bailey in his book
Improvisation: Its Nature And Practice In Music


Distinct Roles

by Matt Blair on February 1, 2009

in Process and Workflow,Quotes

You cannot write books with a critical head. You cannot produce good prose if you are the skeptic, scouring every line for the false note, the exaggeration, the argument that doesn’t persuade.

The [editorial] hat and sneer came in handy later — once I’d written the first draft. It was then I needed to slap myself around, give the manuscript a hard time, and I was glad to have been a former editor. But I had learned something I’d never known: No amount of study, or work in the field, could prepare me for facing the page alone.

Marie Arana, in her introduction to
“The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think And Work”



by Matt Blair on January 28, 2009

in Quotes,Volition

Malcolm Gladwell:

Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.


MLK: Tomorrow is Today

by Matt Blair on January 19, 2009

in History,Quotes

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.”

Martin Luther King, Jr, on April 4, 1967


Poetry is…

by Matt Blair on December 22, 2008

in Quotes

Poetry is a voice of dissent
against the waste of words
and the mad plethora of print

It is what exists
between the lines

It is made
with the syllables of dreams

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, What is Poetry



by Matt Blair on December 11, 2008

in Quotes

I like to say that I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now. This is a useful notion, especially during revision. It reminds me, forcefully, that everything necessary must be on the page. I must make a complete poem — a river-swimming poem, a mountain-climbing poem. Not my poem, if it’s well done, but a deeply breathing, bounding, self-sufficient poem. Like a traveler in an uncertain land, it needs to carry with it all that it must have to sustain its own life — and not a lot of extra weight, either.

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook